Rutgers University–New Brunswick students are working to address health disparities and infant mortality, to understand why Black and Hispanic women are hesitant to get vaccines, and on other projects that benefit society as part of the Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship Academy (IDEA), a new initiative by the Office of Chancellor-Provost Francine Conway.
“IDEA provides hands-on learning opportunities designed to foster innovative thinking, help students discover their talents and interests, leverage the academic resources of Rutgers, and, ultimately, pursue a career path after graduation,” said IDEA founding director Sunita Kramer, now associate vice president for research and experiential education in the Office of the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs. Kramer also is a core faculty member of Rutgers Global Health Institute.
The impetus for IDEA came in 2019, when Kramer and other Rutgers leaders debated how the university could better participate in the global innovation economy.
“We are in the midst of an innovation economy, where rapidly changing technology is impacting the kinds of work in which individuals engage,” she said. “Employers are looking for graduates with an entrepreneurial mindset. Graduates who have the skills to solve problems that we don’t even know exist, using technologies that haven’t even been invented. These skills include creativity, collaboration, problem solving, overcoming failure, and the ability to make connections across multiple disciplines.”
“The IDEA program has really helped me and other students to explore innovative ways to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Srujanesh “Sunny” Gunda, an Honors College junior who has three projects underway at IDEA.
They are the Merck Vaccine Hesitancy Project, a joint initiative between IDEA and Merck to understand why Black and Hispanic women in urban areas are hesitant to get vaccines; an IDEA podcast with six other students, who interview industry partners and discuss “what makes an interdisciplinary change-maker in this new era where students are owning their learning”; and Savant, an education-tech startup that “aims to use artificial knowledge and cognitive science to improve the way teachers teach in the classroom by providing custom content, so they can help students own their learning and foster their love for becoming a lifelong learner,” he said.
Another group of IDEA students have developed BabySafe Health, a free mobile app designed to reduce racial health disparities and give all babies an equal opportunity to be healthy. The app has a variety of features to provide mothers with a personalized solution that includes a machine-learning algorithm to analyze past infant mortality data and give women insight into their pregnancy. The app can help any expecting mother but is primarily targeted toward women of color.
“Our goal is to provide a systematic, personalized solution that empowers mothers, so they can be fully aware of their own health care needs and prevent adverse health effects,” said Scott Rubin, a sophomore at the Rutgers Business School and one of the company’s four co-founders, who include Fauzan Amjad, a sophomore majoring in computer science; Max Handler, a sophomore majoring in computer science and minoring in data science; and Sanjana Sure, a sophomore at the business school.
“Without IDEA and the entire Rutgers ecosystem, we would not be where we are today, and all four of us owe a lot of gratitude to what has been accomplished to those entities,” said Rubin, who is also president of the IDEA Student Leadership Board.
The IDEA pilot program is administered by vice provost Carolyn Moehling. Guided by Kramer and her team, the program launched in the fall of 2020 with the recruitment of 60 students through admissions. During that fall semester, additional students joined the program. Intended to complement any major of study, IDEA is a mix of the arts, sciences, humanities, and engineering paired with design, innovation, and experimenting—and having fun.
The first-year experience is critical for IDEA participants. It includes design sprints, which help students learn to ask questions and build their network; Byrne seminars, which introduce students to interdisciplinary faculty research through major challenges being addressed by Rutgers centers and institutes; and the summer design experience, which gives students the opportunity to engage in authentic projects with alumni, industry, and non-profit leaders.
“Our goal is to expose students to the most important problems that need solving in our society,” Kramer said. “Rather than focusing on majors and requirements, IDEA is designed for students to mobilize the vast resources at Rutgers, including faculty-mentored research, internships, and business skill-building to give clarity and coherence to their educational experience.”
Prabhas Moghe, executive vice president of academic affairs, wanted Rutgers to establish an innovation collaborative that would work closely with the chancellors and relevant deans of all academic units to help coordinate and amplify the success of the varied programs on all campuses.
“There are many rich innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives bubbling up already Rutgers-wide,” he said. “Our goal is to be more coordinated so that we can better imbue a wider spectrum of Rutgers students with an innovative mindset.”
Moghe said the confluence of Rutgers’ innovative scholars, innovation spaces and programs, and extramural entrepreneurs and sponsors will be key to this project. He also believes a close collaboration with the Office for Research, led by senior vice president Michael Zwick, and in particular its Innovation Ventures team, will be integral to ensuring that the university reaps dividends for student success as it invests in growing its faculty-centric research innovations portfolio.
This story originally appeared in Rutgers Today.